Setting Boundaries with Difficult People – The Rule of Opposites

© 2016 Megan Hunter, MBA

If you spend a little time with someone who may be what we term a high conflict personality (HCP)  you will discover that their world is one of opposites. Their behaviors and interactions with people, especially those close to them in family and friendships or those who hold a position of authority in some way, have experienced this.

Many times, or maybe most times, their behaviors in relationships are self-defeating and self-sabotaging although they are often oblivious to their participation in the destructive aftermath. How do we react? We react the same way with them that we do with everyone else. Although natural, it’s illogical.

What works with everyone else doesn’t work with HCPs, including the use of boundaries and limit setting. The HCPs deeply-felt belief that they’re right and you’re wrong results in an intensity that scares us, so we end up avoiding them altogether or bending the boundaries to avoid being yelled at or even feeling uncomfortable.

What they need is for everyone around them to have firm boundaries. They aren’t programmed to respond well to weak or non-existent boundaries, but that’s how we are conditioned to respond. Our fear response is probably in fight, flight or freeze, causing us to try using logical explanations or getting away from them as fast as we can. It’s exactly the opposite of what we should do.

Catching the opposites drift? Their behaviors are opposite or our expectations, so our responses and interactions must be the opposite of what we typically do. It’s hard because it’s uncomfortable and we fear what will happen. We’re used to HCP wrath and we will avoid it like the plague.

The result? Our inaction or weak response strengthens HCP behaviors. The longer it’s allowed to go on, the deeper it becomes ingrained and the more miserable we become. Then comes the day when we timidly step forward with a boundary. We’ve had enough. We can take no more. We’re going to blow our top if we don’t. We have nothing to lose. We do the opposite of what we’re used to doing.

What do you think happens? After your HCP recovers from shock, they may react strongly with yelling, revenge, and other hostilities. Just stay cool. Don’t argue. Don’t run. Stick with the opposite. After the storm passes, you are likely to experience a tiny bit of respect. Small steps, but important steps.

One caveat. If there is even one ounce of fear or suspicion that the HCP may become violent, it’s still good to have boundaries but only when done when you know you are safe and that you won’t be in harm’s way.

Co-founder Megan Hunter is a speakerauthor, and international expert on high-conflict disputes, complicated relationships, and Borderline Personality Disorder. She has over 13 years experience as the Family Law Specialist with the Arizona Supreme Court, and Child Support Manager of the Dawes County Attorney’s Office in Nebraska. 

This post originally appeared on the author’s blog and is reprinted here with permission.

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